Maybe you’ve heard this story before: Ben Franklin, enamored with the “respectable” personality of the wild turkey, wanted to see it, instead of the bald eagle, become the national bird and be used as a symbol for the new United States. However, he lost out to the eagle supporters in Congress. It’s a quirky little story, often brought up when conversation turns to turkeys or eagles, and has been repeated both by average joes and the National Wildlife Federation.
The hitch is that the story has become so warped over time that it's more myth than fact.
First off, Franklin wasn’t involved in the designation of the eagle as the national bird or its selection as an element in the Great Seal of the United States. He did sit on the first committee appointed to work on the seal’s design with Thomas Jefferson and John Adams in 1776, but there’s no record of him arguing against an eagle design or suggesting a turkey. Franklin’s official suggestion for the seal while on the committee was actually a Biblical scene: “Moses standing on the Shore, and extending his Hand over the Sea, thereby causing the same to overwhelm Pharaoh who is sitting in an open Chariot, a Crown on his Head and a Sword in his Hand. Rays from a Pillar of Fire in the Clouds reaching to Moses, to express that he acts by Command of the Deity. ‘Motto - Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God.’”
The committee decided to make this the reverse side of the seal, and on the front wanted to depict a shield with emblems symbolizing “the Countries from which these States have been peopled,” including an Imperial Eagle to represent Germany. There’s no written record to suggest that Franklin had anything to say about the eagle. Congress, however, did have some issue with the design. The same day they received the committee’s report and proposal, they had it tabled.
Two more committees, neither of which Franklin served on, were formed in 1780 and 1782 and continued work on the seal. The final design and inclusion of the bald eagle was the work of the third committee. Their design was initially similar to the first committee’s, with a central shield flanked by the figures of a soldier and “maiden America.” They then simplified the image and replaced the two figures with a bald eagle “on the wing and rising.” Here again, there’s no record of a complaint from Franklin, who was then serving as an envoy to Paris and hadn’t participated in the seal design process for six years. Franklin probably couldn’t have said anything about the design even if he had wanted to. Congress approved the seal just three weeks after the design was finished, and travel time from Europe to the U.S. at the time was closer to six to eight weeks, leaving no time for there to be a turkey-versus-eagle debate for Franklin to have lost.
So, if Franklin didn’t propose the turkey in committee or argue against the eagle design when it was being considered, where did people get the idea that he was a turkey lover?
It wasn’t until two years after the final seal was designed and approved that Franklin put his feelings about eagles and turkeys down for posterity. In January 1784, he wrote his daughter a letter, the main subject of which was the Society of the Cincinnati, a military fraternity formed by revolutionary war officers. Franklin griped at length about the society, complaining that membership was hereditary and that the group had taken on many of the characteristics of a chivalric order, which contradicted many of the ideals the society’s members had just fought a war to promote and protect.
Eventually, Franklin turned his attention to the society’s badge. Some of the Society’s critics, Franklin said, complained about the badge’s use of Latin. Others found fault with the title for members that it used. And others took issue with the bald eagle that it depicted, which Franklin said looked “too much like a Dindon, or Turkey.”
“For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen as the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly. You may have seen him perch’d on some dead Tree near the River, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labour of the Fishing Hawk; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a Fish, and is bearing it to his Nest for the Support of his Mate and young Ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him. With all this Injustice, he is never in good Case but like those among Men who live by Sharping and Robbing he is generally poor and often very lousy. Besides he is a rank Coward: The little King Bird not bigger than a Sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the District. He is therefore by no means a proper Emblem for the brave and honest Cincinnati of America who have driven all the King birds from our Country, tho’ exactly fit for that Order of Knights which the French call Chevaliers d’Industrie.
“I am on this account not displeas’d that the Figure is not known as a Bald Eagle, but looks more like a Turkey. For in Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America. Eagles have been found in all Countries, but the Turkey was peculiar to ours, the first of the Species seen in Europe being brought to France by the Jesuits from Canada, and serv’d up at the Wedding Table of Charles the ninth. He is besides, tho’ a little vain and silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.”
In repetitions of the Franklin-turkey story, these passages are often taken out of context and made to seem like public statements by Franklin, or made in direct response to the use of the eagle on the Great Seal, instead of private musings made about the eagle’s use by a military society. And while Franklin does lament the eagle becoming symbolic of both the Society and the United States after the fact, he doesn’t say that the turkey would have been a better choice for the Great Seal; he only suggests that he likes that the Society’s eagle resembles a turkey because the turkey is a “more respectable” bird.
Given his criticism of the Society’s practices, “brave and honest” as its members are, and the line about the turkey being “a little vain and silly” but still “a Bird of Courage” driving out the Red Coats, one might read Franklin’s comparisons as just poking some fun at the Society. Even if you take what Franklin said about both birds at face value, though, the story as it's usually told misses the mark and takes some liberties with both Franklin’s opinions and actions. To portray Franklin in “strenuous opposition to it [the eagle] when the great seal was under consideration” and unsuccessfully advocating to replace it with the turkey, says the American Heraldry Society, “is a gross exaggeration of the historical record.”